7 reasons for not sending your staff an email

September 29, 2006

My thanks to Paolina via the ACT KM Forum for bringing my attention to this article. Apparently the IQ loss arising from addiction to email and text messaging is over double that arising from using cannabis. It inspired me to come up with a list of reasons for managers to restrict email use:

  1. You will get time to walk the floor (and sometimes even walk the talk) not to mention think and talk strategically
  2. Looking people in the eye tells you more than trying to make sense of emoticons, and an apology in the flesh is worth far more (in both directions) than any virtual communication
  3. You will get a chance to check for reaction before you press send, and to recover in real time if you make a mistake; before it becomes fatal
  4. The human brain evolved is designed to see patterns, not process small chunks of information, but if you spend your time processing said chunks you will loose the patterning capability (the neurons will die out) and end up as an information processor. Another name for that function/capability is clark not manager
  5. Its far more likely that you will pick up that something is going right/wrong by meeting people in their own environment; you will sense multiple audio and visual tools that are not available in email
  6. It is far too easy to come across as authoritarian using a keyboard, and its more difficult for people to say no to you face-to-face than it is in writing
  7. Your eyesight and general disposition will improve, not to mention your flexibility to negotiate a win-win result with your staff and to see them as humans not avatars

For more on email addiction, some cold turkey and my plans for a Luddite manifesto read on.

The referenced article provides additional support for my previous concerns about the privileging of the virtual over the real. I am not attempting to denigrate the power of the virtual, but the near messianic evangelism of some its advocates scares the living daylights out of me.

I did some work back in IBM days that corroborated the article’s findings. Most corporate email users demonstrate all the signs of a drug addict in their need to be connected. Of course methadone is available for the severely affected through the use of a Blackberry but this just puts off dealing with the problems. I have been resisting siren voices that are seeking to get me to further my own email addiction by aquiring a Blackberry. I need someone to put wax in my ears and tie me to the mast or I will soon throw myself into the sea.

E-mail addicts also display withdrawal symptoms on being derived of contact that mirror those suffering drug dependence. I once took a list of behaviours that I had observed among senior executives (stripped of reference to emails) to a psychologist who handled teenage drug issues under the guise of saying is it likely this person has a problem. Their response was to suggest an early intervention to provide help before the condition became chronic, possibly to call in the police. If I told you how many emails the average IBM General Manager (a very senior position) is expected to process a day I would probably breech some contract and bring the lawyers down on my head so suffice it to say that it is really scary number.

Now when I first reached a business management position I used to deal with my correspondence in an hour every morning working with my secretary. This left the rest of the day free to manage the business. It also meant that my secretary could handle most letters with little involvement from me. I have also noticed that people are more aggressive in email, they can respond inhumanely through an inhumane media which is far more difficult to do in social interaction.

Now I know that sometimes people live in different geographies and face to face contact is hard, but there is always the telephone. Yes email is better for things like organising meetings etc. It may be easier to attempt to manage as if you were games master of some some on-line simulation game, but its a damn sight more rewarding to treat people as people. Don’t abandon it, but keep it in a box; alcohol is good in moderation, but not to excess.

In one experiment I got a company to ban email for a week. It was amazing, people discovered that people lived on the other side of the partition ……

The list is the starting point for a future publication of A Luddite manifesto which is designed to remind us of the advantages of the human interaction over the virtual. Oh, and for the record I share the position of E P Thompson in respect of the Luddites which is well summarised in the Wikipedia in the version that existed as of the time and date of this posting. Progress without concern for social consequences is dangerous and should be the concern of all right thinking folks. Any suggestions for the manifesto are welcome.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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